Fifteen to 30 years in prison for Jackson Twp. mom who killed 3-year-old 'Bella' Godfrey
A candlelight vigil is held for three-year-old who police say was killed by her mother.
A Jackson Township woman who experts say was in "toxic psychosis" from bath salts and other drugs when she killed her 3-year-old daughter with her bare hands in 2016 has been sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison.
Psychiatric experts who examined Regina Lester, 33, agreed that but for the bath salts Lester smoked, and perhaps the rest of the cocktail of drugs she took, Isabel Rose Godfrey — called Bella — would likely be alive today.
Instead, her mother murdered her on June 8, 2016, in their Chesapeake Estates home.
Presiding Common Pleas Judge Maria Musti Cook noted at Lester's third-degree murder sentencing hearing Thursday, June 27, that it was Lester's choice to use the drugs that made her mentally ill and continue to affect her cognitive abilities.
"A 3-year-old child is basically a helpless individual who looks for love and guidance from her parents and expects nothing but that," Cook said in court. "I can’t really imagine what that was like for (Bella) that day. I don’t want to imagine it."
The judge also spoke of the anguish, confusion and post-traumatic stress that Lester's then-6-year-old son, now 9, likely suffers from having watched his mother kill his baby sister.
Lester's older son, now 12, was 9 at the time of Bella's murder and wasn't living in Lester's home, which was being regularly monitored by the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families.
"They will be adults at the time she is eligible for parole," Cook said of Lester's sons. "And that is what I want to see."
'A lot of big ifs': Cook acknowledged the conclusions of expert psychiatrists for both the prosecution and defense, who have opined that Lester is capable of being rehabilitated with proper counseling, medication management and drug-and-alcohol counseling.
"Those are a lot of big ifs, quite frankly," the judge said, then also imposed a consecutive five years of probation, so Lester will be supervised by probation officers until she's in her mid-60s.
The lead investigator in the case, Northern York County Regional Police Detective Michael Hine, was the only person to give a witness-impact statement for the prosecution in court.
Struggling to control his emotions, Hine listed the many people, including neighbors, first responders and 911 dispatchers, who have been profoundly affected by Bella's death, including himself.
"I’ve been told by close friends and family that I changed that day. Good, bad or indifferent, I don’t know," he told the judge, adding that he "drove as fast as humanly possible to help a little girl I didn't know."
Prayed for help: He said that while still at the scene with Bella's lifeless body, he prayed to God "to save the life of this little girl."
Hine said Lester was crazed at the scene, threatening to kill other children — "the blood of her daughter still on her mouth."
The detective recounted that Bella's 6-year-old brother raced to Bella's babysitter's home a few blocks away for help and how that babysitter, Andrew Day, tried to revive Bella.
Day has told The York Dispatch he stopped CPR when he realized it was too late to save the little girl, whom he said he loved like a daughter. Day and another neighbor then tackled the naked Lester and held her there until police arrived.
Before being arrested at the scene, Lester was overheard saying she had to get "the darkness" out of her daughter, according to witness statements.
The detective said there were too many bruises, bite marks and other injuries on Bella "to list in front of everyday people."
"I saw the absolute worst in humanity. I've had several sleepless nights, as I'm sure others involved did," Hine said. "It was hard for me to (talk publicly) today, but I knew someone had to speak for Bella," whose "last breath on earth was taken (from her) by her mother."
'I miss her every day': A heavily medicated Lester apologized in court, saying she loves Bella and her two sons.
She said she cries at night and doesn't remember attacking her 3-year-old daughter.
"I want the judge and my family and the community to know that I regret and feel horrible about ... killing my daughter Bella," she said. "I miss her every day. I made a bad decision to use drugs. ... I never wanted to hurt Bella."
Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fischbein testified by phone Thursday, saying the drugs Lester took caused her "toxic psychosis," primarily from bath salts.
Defense attorney Suzanne Smith has said no one knows Lester's long-term mental-health prognosis; she's given medication twice a day to keep her from becoming psychotic again.
"Every day she lives with this," Smith told the judge on Thursday.
People who knew her considered her a good mother, according to Smith, who had asked Cook to impose a sentence of eight to 16 years.
Asked for max: Senior deputy prosecutor Kara Bowser asked Cook to hand down the maximum possible sentence, 20 to 40 years.
"She was the person who was supposed to protect (Bella), to keep her safe ... not be the predator," Bowser argued, and reminded the judge that despite Lester's solid family support network, the home life she provided for her children was one that required repeated intervention by child-protective authorities.
Lester committed "the most unimaginable, unfathomable horrible act a mother can commit against a child," the prosecutor said. "I can't imagine the fear Bella felt."
Lester's 6-year-old son told authorities "she hurts us by accident because she can't think right," according to Bowser, who argued that Lester chose drugs over being a mother.
The background: Lester pleaded guilty but mentally ill to a charge of third-degree murder on March 27, months after being ruled competent to stand trial after spending about 13 months in a state mental hospital.
Testing showed the drugs in Lester's system at the time of Bella's death included the opioid fentanyl, K2 (also known as spice or synthetic marijuana), marijuana and the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam.
Smith has said that because Lester was intoxicated, she couldn't form the intent that's required by law to be guilty of first-degree murder, which is why the plea was to third-degree murder.
Third-degree murder requires malice but doesn't require intent or premeditation.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.